Friday, January 20, 2012

#9 Prospect - Jeff Locke

Another pitcher! Surprise, surprise.  This time it's Jeff Locke, my #9 Pirates Prospect.  Like Kingham was the second youngest player I had profiled up to that point, Locke is the second oldest player currently on my countdown.  Approximately one month younger than Rudy Owens, Locke was not a Pirates draftee.  Formerly part of the Atlanta Braves farm system, the left-handed pitcher was part of the swap that sent Nate McLouth (aka all-star, gold glove winner Nate McLouth) to the Braves in exchange for Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez and Locke.

The Braves drafted Locke in the second round in 2006 as a prep pitcher out of the state of New Hampshire.  Locke signed early enough to get a fair amount of playing time in the Gulf Coast League in 2006.  Pitching in 10 games and given 5 starts, Locke posted a 3.01 FIP fueled by a K/9 of 10.6 and a BB/9 rate of 1.4 in 32 innings. Locke was ranked as the Braves #17 prospect in 2007, three spots ahead of Tommy Hanson by John Sickels.  Sickels gave him a C+ grade.  Locke followed up his successful short stint in 2006 with an excellent year in 2007, again in the GCL.  In 61 innings, Locke posted a phenomenal K/9 rate just a tad under 11, a BB/9 of 1.2, and a GB/FB rate of 1.67.  That resulted in a 2.66 ERA and a 1.74 FIP, two superb numbers.  Locke most likely did get lucky with homeruns, posting a HR/9 number of 0.30, although his GB/FB numbers would help create that 'luck.'

Locke's 2007 season propelled him up Sickels's 2008 Braves prospect list where he was now ranked #11 and given a B- grade.  In 2008, Locke had another solid season - this time in the South Atlantic League for the Low-A Rome Braves - although he wasn't nearly as dominant as he had been 2007.  In essentially 140 innings (139.2), Locke posted a 3.04 FIP, another good sign. Unfortunately, Locke saw his peripherals, especially his strikeout rate deteriorate a bit.  His K/9 rate was only 7.3 and BB/9 rate more than doubled to 2.45, although it still indicated solid control on Locke's part.  Locke continued to post strong groundball rates, finishing the year with a 1.59 GB/FB ratio. Again, Locke continued his trend of keeping the ball in the park, posting a 0.39 HR/9 rate.

Locke's solid season earned him a slight bump, going from #11 on the Braves 2008 list to #10 on the Braves 2009 list made by Sickels. Locke still received a B- grade, with a description of "I’ve liked him since he was in high school. Like Rohrbough, worry some about injuries." Sickels should have 'worried' about a trade instead.  As mentioned earlier, Locke was traded mid-season to the Pirates as part of a package that bought Nate McLouth. As a result, Locke spent his entire season in the Carolina League, split between Myrtle Beach (Braves) and Lynchburg (Pirates).  He had another fine season, with a FIP in the mid 3's for both teams combined.  For the entire season, Locke finished the year with a K/9 rate just over 7.0 and a BB/9 rate of 3.1.  He also had good groundball and homerun numbers, with a groundball rate well over 1.00 again and a HR rate under 0.40 for the third straight year.

Due to the trade, Locke was shifted over to the top 20 Pirates list for 2010.  It didn't matter much as he was not in the top 20 and thus ungraded.  Locke started the year at the Pirates new High-A affiliate, Bradenton.  This marked the first time Locke has not received a promotion since not getting one after his short rookie season right after he signed with the Braves in 2006.  That lack of a promotion didn't too last long, as Locke put up great numbers at Bradenton in 17 starts.  Locke's FIP of 2.91, fueled by his four peripheral numbers of: 8.7 (K/9), 1.5 (BB/9), 0.6 (HR/9) and 1.4 (GB/FB rate), earned him a promotion to AA Altoona.  At Altoona, Locke saw no major changes in his numbers in 10 starts, so his FIP also stayed consistent at 3.22.  Somewhat alarmingly, Locke's excellent (thus far in his career) HR/9 numbers had finally went from phenomenal to solid as his HR/9 rate in AA in 2010 was 0.8.

Locke's season, in which he finished the year at the fairly high level of AA in a strong manner, put him firmly back on the prospect map going into 2011.  Sickels ranked him as the Pirates #6 prospect, gave him a B- grade, and stated "Like [Rudy] Owens, a number three or four starter though I don't like Locke quite as much."  Locke, now a member of the Altoona four which also included Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, and Rudy Owens, started out 2011 without a promotion.  Back at Altoona for most of the year (22 of 33 starts), Locke saw his numbers drop a bit, but still posted a 3.61 FIP.  His K/9 rate  remained promising, at 8.2, but his control suffered, resulting in a 3.3 BB/9.  Locke's HR/9 rate dropped a bit, to 0.65/9, and his groundball rate spiked to 1.56, his highest since 2008.

As result of another solid stop at Altoona, Locke got 5 starts in AAA Indianapolis before being promoted to Pittsburgh, where he got 4 starts.  His 5 starts in Indy were excellent, resulting in a 2.85 FIP.  Locke's 4 starts in Pittsburgh on the other hand were quite awful, especially his peripherals.  His K:BB rate of 5:10 pretty well summed it up, but it was a very small sample size from a 23 year-old pitching in the major leagues for the first time.

Locke has a decent fastball, which sits in the low 90's when he isn't having any problems.  It's bolstered by his command of the pitch, which is very good.  Locke has two secondaries the throws, a curveball and a changeup.  Both are very good.  Right now the curveball is better, and with a bit more of refinement it could be a plus pitch.  Locke's changeup is also quite good, although not quite on the same level as his curveball.  Of late, it has shown great improvement and could also be a plus pitch some day soon.  Locke also knows how to pitch and can command all three pitches, giving him very good pitchability that allows him to out-pitch his slightly above-average arsenal.

There exists disagreement about Locke's physical stature, as Baseball America and Baseball reference has him listed at 6'1, 215, and Fangraphs has him at 6'2, 180.  At age 23, it would seem to me that the former is more likely.  Either way, Locke doesn't offer too much project-ability, although as he matures he might gain a tick on his fastball.  Ultimately it doesn't matter too much as Locke is a 'what you see is what you get' pitcher at this point.  What the Pirates will get is a lefty pitcher with a solid arsenal and better pitchability that could be a #3 or even a #2 pitcher if things go perfectly.  More likely, Locke, who's still fairly young as he just turned 24, will provide the Pirates with good, back-of-the-rotation innings for the next half decade, hopefully fitting in behind Taillon and Cole.  It's that solid floor mixed with ceiling I think is better than most give him credit for that causes me to rank Jeff Locke as my #9 Pirates prospect.